Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review of "Burn" by James Patrick Kelly

I'm a long-time fan of James Patrick Kelly, but have only been exposed
in the past to his shorter works, such as the Nebula-winning short
story, "Mr. Boy." Kelly podcasts actively, and I thought I'd look for
the print version of his book, "Burn," which won a Nebula in 2006.

What distinguishes Kelly is his ability to create worlds that are
*different* from the ordinary. Of course, that is natural for science
fiction, and world-building is expected. Kelly's skillful at it, of
course, but it is his imagination that takes it to the next level.

Burn is set on a planet 400 years in the future that has decided to
simplify life and drop out of the thousand-planet human community. The
founders of this Darwin-like society have purchased Morobe's Pea, a
planet ruined by its native human inhabitants, and shut out all outside

But what would you do if you were a native, and the new owners came
in and told you to get lost/relocate/disappear? Does this sound like
certain events in our own world?

Rebellious natives have taken to burning the forests the Darwinians
have planted to reclaim the environment. The protagonist, Prosper
"Spur" Leung, is a volunteer firefighter pledged to stamp out the
suicide burnings in order to preserve his family and community's
old-fashioned farming way of life.

Spur has been badly burned in the latest fire and out of boredom plays
with a computer at the hospital. He discovers the Upside,
the thousand linked human worlds his society has rejected. In
particular, he accidentally meets a child on the network, who turns
out to be the powerful equivalent of the Dalai Lama of the galaxy.

I especially enjoyed the entourage of wise children accompanying
Leung's new benefactor. They reminded me of the Lylmik in Julian May's
Galactic Milieu Series, who have been shepherded into "coadunation" by
the entity known as Atoning Unifex.

As this child tours Spur's society, another giant fire threatens to
take all they have built. Kelly paints a realistic portrait of the
fearsome destruction fire can cause, one many of us in Colorado
can readily identify with.

Spur is torn between preserving his pledged lifestyle and
understanding the despair of the original inhabitants. The child asks:
Is man really capable of living alone? Spur can't say.

Did the Upside meddle in their affairs, or leave them to their own
self-destructive war? The answer is both startling and regenerative.

I had a hard time finding this book, and had to get it hardcover from
a reseller in the UK. I hope Kelly has better luck with future
publishers. It's sobering when a famous star like him can't get his
books out there in paperback.

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